Steel Industry: 28th October 2015

Kevin Brennan
I am not going to give way, because of time.

We found out today that the Government are ordering hundreds of military vehicles and three new ships for our armed forces to be built using steel imported from Sweden. And this at the same time as Gareth Stace, of UK Steel, said that the British steel industry was “likely to die” without stronger support from the Government. He said that yesterday to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. We should not be surprised that the Business Secretary has until now pursued what Tata called in its briefing for this debate a laissez-faire ideology, because he has made it clear that that is what he believes in. You might not have read it, Mr Deputy Speaker, but his favourite book is “The Fountainhead”, by Ayn Rand, in which the hero blows up a poor housing estate because he does not like the design, such is his individualist approach.

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
Shameful.

Kevin Brennan
The Minister may say that, but my argument is that the basic cause of the Government’s slowness to respond to the steel crisis is that the Secretary of State fundamentally believes that it is not the business of Government to get involved in markets and industry. So while he is having to be seen to be doing something by going to Brussels today, he is actually in practice—[Interruption.] Government Members can chunter away as usual all they like, but in practice he has been busy planning the dismantling of his Department’s capacity to support steel and other key strategic British industries. He has volunteered to cut his Department’s budget by 40% , and this week we read in the Financial Times how investment grants to key British sectors are being converted to loans. It turns out that the much-vaunted apprenticeship levy will become a displacement tax on business and will not compensate for the cuts to the training budget.

This approach has to stop, and it is has to be replaced with a proper industrial strategy based on the consensus built up under the last Labour Government and, in fact, the last coalition Government, but which the Business Secretary does not believe in. We need a much clearer ​steer from the Government that they are prepared not only to say that steel is a key strategic industry, but to act to ensure it remains a key strategic industry. I again ask Ministers what they think is the minimum capacity for steelmaking in the UK below which it is not in the country’s strategic interests to go? The Minister told the Select Committee:

“I have an absolute determination to keep steel in this country”.

In her winding-up speech, will she make it absolutely clear what she means by minimum capacity for this strategic industry? What efforts are Ministers making to calculate the cost of cleaning up sites such as Redcar when they close? In a written parliamentary answer to me last week, she could not say. How can the Government decide whether closure is the right choice when they cannot even estimate the cost of cleaning up the site?

At last week’s urgent question, I urged the Business Secretary to implement the five points raised by UK Steel at the steel summit the previous week. At that time, he could not confirm that he would. Will the Minister now confirm, albeit belatedly, that the Government will do that, and will she fully implement the energy intensive industry compensation package now, not later?

Will the Government finally press hard at the EU level on anti-dumping measures? Will the Minister even admit that dumping is going on? Will she let that phrase cross her lips in her response? Will they remove plant and machinery from business rate calculations and stop gold-plating EU regulations? Will they support the use of British steel in major projects, unlike what we hear today with the staggering news about Swedish steel being used by the Ministry of Defence? Will they listen to calls from the trade unions, including Community, for a long-term strategy rather than a hand-to-mouth approach? What are the Government going to do to support skills retention and short-time working during the current crisis, if that is needed?

This has been the first major industrial test for the Business Secretary in particular and for the Conservative Government in general since the general election As I have argued, their initial response was to revert to type and do as little as possible. They were prepared, it seemed, to let a key strategic industry die without a fight. Because of the chorus of voices from local MPs, from us as Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, from the workforce, from employers and from the public, they have had to move, albeit far too slowly and too late for thousands who have lost their jobs The steel industry is a classic example of a case where the Government need to be prepared to roll up their sleeves immediately and intervene before breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. This Government have been slow to act. The steelworkers whose jobs have been lost know it, the British public know it and, deep down inside, Ministers know it too—it will not be forgotten.

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
May I begin by paying tribute to all those who work in our steel industry, particularly the workforce and indeed the management? I pay particular tribute to all those—it is mainly men, but some women also work there—who have unfortunately lost their jobs, and to their families, be they at Dalzell, Clydebridge, Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Llanwern or Redcar.​

Nobody should ever dare to suggest that anybody on the Government Benches has taken any pleasure, happiness or anything else in the unfortunate demise we have seen over recent times of a large part of our steel industry. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is sitting there, but he made one of the most disappointing speeches I have ever heard. He does no service whatsoever to his industry and the workers he says he seeks to support, who have come all this way to be here today. In the short time I have been in my position it has been a pleasure to attend a number of debates and even urgent questions to listen to the impassioned speeches of so many Members who speak on behalf of their constituents, and rightly so. That is their job and they do it. But, seriously and genuinely, to try to score cheap political and, in many respects, highly personal points does absolutely nothing at all. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) shouts at me, but he should know better. He knows how hard I, and others, worked to secure the future of the Redcar plant, but let us get to the facts.

The facts are as follows: the price of steel has in some instances, slab in particular, almost halved. That is the harsh reality. On the Redcar plant, it is a fact that all the time SSI was there—more than three and a half years—it lost hundreds of millions of pounds. You can have my word, Mr Deputy Speaker, that if anybody had come forward to buy the blast furnace to secure it or the coke ovens, the official receiver would have taken those offers exceedingly seriously. But the horrible truth is that no such buyers came forward, and why would they?
 
Sir William Cash
Will the Minister give way?
 
Anna Soubry
I am sorry, but I am not taking interventions. They would not, because the plant was losing hundreds of millions of pounds—even the coke ovens, which we fought so hard to secure, were losing £2 million a month. That was the harsh, awful reality.

All the steel industry asks for—and it is right to make these requests—is that we have a level playing field. It feels that its hands are tied behind its back. It makes its case, and I pay tribute to Gareth Stace, one of the first people—

Several hon. Members rose—

Anna Soubry
No, I am not giving way. He was one of the first people that I met after my appointment, because I knew how much he knew about the British steel industry. It wants a level playing field, and it is right to do so. That is what this Government are doing.

Let me make it absolutely clear—

Andy McDonald
Will the Minister give way?
 
Anna Soubry
No.

Andy McDonald
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We hear from the Minister that no people were coming forward to discuss projects to take over at SSI. She needs to correct that position, because there were consortiums of—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
Order. That is not a point of order, but a point of debate. I understand that emotions are running very high.

Anna Soubry
As I said, nobody came forward with an offer, and the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) knows that I held a meeting with someone who had said they were interested, but the harsh awful reality was that nobody came forward with an offer.

Andy McDonald
rose—

Anna Soubry
No, I will not take any more interventions from the hon. Gentleman. I will talk to him as I always do but I do not have time for interventions.

Let me explain the actions that the Government have taken. On energy costs, we have already paid out £50 million in compensation to the steel industry. In relation to the “unfair trade”, as we put it—in simple and sharp terms “dumping”—one of the first things we did when we were elected was to take a decision and cast our vote to protect our steel industry. That had never happened before, and it was done specifically on the direction of myself and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Then we turn to rebar—the investigation was started on behalf of this Government and on behalf of the steel industry after it came to us and presented us with the evidence.

Now let us look at procurement. Opposition Members, and indeed Government Members—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) who fights as hard as he always does for his steel workforce—quite properly talk about a difficulty over procurement. Again, let us look at the evidence. The evidence is absolutely clear. We have already changed the rules for the benefit, not just of the British steel industry but for the whole of British industry, because we put into the score card of the public sector the fact that social and environmental considerations could be taken into account. That was the first time that had happened, so I am not taking any lessons from Labour Members, who had an opportunity to do that for 13 years and failed to do so. That is the sort of direct action that we have taken. We are taking this further. We have three working groups, one of which is looking specifically at how we can extend those rules further—and not just in the public sector.

Several hon. Members rose—

Anna Soubry
The hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) can come to see me any time. The hon. Member for Hartlepool made a really good point about the supply chains. Yes, we can chase public procurement, but we have to make sure it goes through the supply chain, which is absolutely the sort of work that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) is doing—looking at how best to take those new rules all the way through the supply chain.

The Government will take further actions. We have advanced the talks with the Commission for millions more in compensation. That is why the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is not here today; he is over in Brussels doing a brilliant job. We have already spoken to the most important Ministers about how to change things and how to secure and work with our allies in Europe to make sure that we look at the state-aid rules and how we can do more on dumping to protect our steel industry.​

If we look at the Crossrail contract, we find that 97% of all the materials have been placed with British companies using British materials. We know that 40,000 tonnes of steel for HMS Queen Elizabeth was made by Tata, while 95% of Network Rail’s steel is British steel. It has embarked, under this Government, on the biggest programme of railway investment that has been seen since Victorian times. If only it were as simple as—